It seems like a step backwards to some.
Some proposals for re-drawing school attendance zones in Roanoke City would do away with zones that go back to the early 1970s and the need to bus kids out of their neighborhoods to schools across town in search of a greater racial balance in classrooms.
Two of the options presented by the school board call for single, contiguous attendance zones around schools, in effect creating something more like neighborhood schools than the city has seen for many a decade.
But in some cases those neighborhood schools will come at the cost of racial integration.
That’s a fact decried by some as a return to a segregated past that we’re supposed to have left far behind by now. But is it fair to expect the school system to accomplish what the vast, vast majority of Roanokers have not?
You’ve probably heard, and if you pay any attention at all, you could have surmised on your own, that Roanoke is a deeply segregated city. How segregated?
The city was divided into 23 census tracts for the 2000 census. Fifteen of them were at least two-thirds white, and eight were 90 percent white. Five were more than two-thirds black.
That leaves just three census tracts that could be called integrated. That’s quite a lot to ask the school system to overcome, isn’t it?
Why do we live like this?
Roanoke’s residential patterns were established in the city’s infancy in the 19th century, historians like Rand Dotson will tell you. Dotson is author of “Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South,” and, full-disclosure, my college room-mate. Whites wanted the races separate, they held the money and the power, and so it came to be.
Those patterns were preserved through the years in a number of ways.
Like red-lining, a practice of using lending practices to contain black residents to certain areas.
And deed restrictions, in which the deed for a piece of property forbids it being sold to people of certain races. In Roanoke, those typically included not only blacks, but Jews, Italians, Greeks and Lebanese or Syrian people.
And for one brief period, the law. Roanoke joined a small group of cities that made segregation the law by creating segregation zones. They literally drew up maps with defined white and black neighborhoods.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck the practice down, not because of the racism of it, but because it deprived people of their right to own and use property. Blacks could own property in a white neighborhood, but if they couldn’t use it, that was unconstitutional.
I wrote a story about that practice in 2005, and inevitably arrived at the same question. If it’s not the law, why do we still live this way?
Certainly economics would seem to play a part. Blacks are disproportionately poor compared to whites, and therefore have less mobility. But that’s not true of all blacks, and it certainly doesn’t account for whites who have money and mobility.
There’s also the power of habit and comfort, which shouldn’t be underestimated.
For that 2005 story, I asked Roanoker and historian Reginald Shareef, who is black, why we still live in such segregation.
“I think it’s almost an unconscious conditioning,” he said. Whether you’re black or white, “there are certainly places in Roanoke City that you’re comfortable, and certain places that you shouldn’t be.”
In other words, Roanoke has it’s black places, and it’s white places. I’m undeniably part of that problem. I live in Raleigh Court, which is certainly a white place in my mind. It’s in the same zip code I’ve lived in for almost every year of my life. I’ve clearly chosen comfort.
But what about places that are black and white places, the spots in town where black and white both feel comfort and ownership? Well, there don’t seem to be a great many of those.
I’ve got a few in mind. I’m sure there are more. So you tell me, where are the places where black Roanoke and white Roanoke comfortably overlap?